The Effects of Criticism, Verbal Abuse and Judgment on Children and the Adults They Become
My friend and I were talking about how similar our past was. Yet, she was brought up the American South and I was brought up in Montreal, Quebec Canada. You see our past is similar because it is a common past shared by many adults and many children of today. The commonality in our past was the fact that we grew up as children who never felt validated. We grew up as children who were always criticized by our parents, our peers, and everyone in our lives.
That past of criticism led to psychological scars, which lasted long into adulthood. I was one of the lucky ones. As student of psychology, and later a therapist by training I learned to overcome most of the scars. Unfortunately, many people do not. The scars affect their behavior well into the present day.
What criticism will do to children?
Harsh criticism can shake the very foundation of a child’s self esteem and make children feel like they are bad, worthless, and useless. The scars do not heal on their own. If the child is not given support he or she becomes an adult with low self-esteem. The effects of low self-esteem are devastating. In adulthood, people suffering from low self esteem often hold themselves back from great opportunities because they just do not feel “good enough.”
Verbal abuse can have more negative impact than physical abuse
Research from the University of Calgary shows that verbal abuse often has more psychological impact and subsequent psychological damage than physical abuse does. The sad part is that parents are not always aware that they are verbally abusive and that their criticism is not helping shape the child into a productive vibrant individual, but rather a shell of a person who is very insecure, very afraid of life, and afraid of doing something wrong. Sometimes they are not even sure what that wrong would be because they are criticized for everything they do anyhow.
Parents do not always realize that very young children will believe everything they say. Given a steady diet of this constant criticism and children internalize these feelings “If mommy says I am lazy and dumb then I must be.” It sometimes takes a lifetime to break this cycle of self loathing brought on initially by parents and or key people in a child’s life.
Comparing children to others
Parents rob their children of good self esteem when they ridicule, belittle, put them down, humiliate, judge or criticize their children. They can even do that when they compare their children to other children with the intention of showing how the other child is doing better. Their intentions may have been to motivate the child into doing better. Yet, often the message comes across, as the child is “just not good enough.”
How unresolved self-esteem issues can play out in childhood and even into adulthood
Both my friend and I were compared to other people. In my friend’s case her brother could do no wrong and she could do no right. She was made to feel that she was bad, yet she didn’t know why.
In my case I didn’t feel bad, but I felt I was never good enough. My mother always compared me to my sister and my sister was her favorite. It was always, “How come you can’t do this, Linda can?” Or, “Why don’t you style your hair like Linda’s?” and so on. It was only when I grew up I stood up to my mother and said, “I don’t do anything like Linda because I am not Linda. I am me! We are two very different kinds of people with two very different personalities.”
However, being compared all my life was devastating for me and for my friend as well. My friend felt she was bad, I felt I was invisible. Both these reactions are very typical reactions of children who are not validated and have very low self-esteem.
In adulthood it has had its toll on our lives. Both of us have missed opportunities because we did not feel good enough. I know that I have not applied for certain jobs in my life because I felt there was always somebody else that was better. I know that it did not even go to university until I was 37 for the very same reason. I have written about these events in several articles about my personal life.
In adulthood children that have been verbally abused may transfer the feelings of their abuser from the past onto the people they are dealing with in the present. They will assume everything said to them is negative or has some kind of hidden meaning that just has to be negative. These statements can be very neutral with no hidden meaning, but the abused child automatically believes it has to be negative and so the adult will react as if the statement was negative. For example, the statement of personal feeling, “I am surprised,” translates to being sarcastic when actually it wasn’t, or a helpful tip such as “If you would add this statement to your paper it would make it clearer, is translated to mean, “you hate my work, you think it is not good enough,” when that was not the intention either. Positive criticism is often mistaken for negative criticism.
In my situation the feeling of being invisible has shaped me into be a direct person. As a direct person I am far from being invisible. Some people may not like my directness but I do. I am able to say all the things I could not say as a child because I was invisible and nobody really listened anyhow.
However, other people will remain invisible and they will not share their true feelings with other people because they feel bad, or they feel they don’t have a right to these feelings or thoughts, or others may get mad at them if they did speak their true mind. This again is the thoughts and feelings of the inner child who was never allowed to express herself, and still has not learned as an adult to do so.
Many of these people are what used to be termed as passive aggressive. They don’t like what a person says or does, or how others treat them. Yet they accept it. They allow other people do it and they just stew inside until they eventually blow up in some way such as telling the person off, or quitting a project, or ignoring the person all together, and still the other person has no idea why they are being ignored.
These people often do not understand the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness. They never learned as a child to be assertive because everything they did was criticized, ignored, or devalued in some way.
Aggressive people push people around making sure their needs come first over others. Assertive people let people know what their needs are and ask that they be met in a polite way.
Passive people let others take advantage of them and their needs are never met. For example, let’s take writing as an example. A passive person may take on more work than can be handled because he or she does not know how to say no. They may mistake saying, “no thank you I have as much as I can handle,” as being aggressive when it is not.
In actuality aggressive people have a demanding style which is very different from getting their needs might. They might say, “Listen I am not doing this work for you and I demand that you pay me more than that for any future projects.” Why that is aggressive and not assertive is the demand, there is no room for negotiation. An assertive person might be saying the same thing but in a milder fashion. “I am sorry but I cannot take on this job because it does not pay the rate that I require, but if you have some better paying jobs in the future I would appreciate if you keep me in mind.”
Can people change their past beliefs?
Some people will just continue to be what their parents or other influential people in their lives thought of them. For example, if they were told as children they were lazy and would never amount to anything this may be what they become as adults; lazy people who do not get a job or do anything productive with their lives. The trouble is lazy is just a label and this label does not have to remain just because somebody in the past felt that way about them. As adults we must put the past behind and forge our own lives and let our true personalities shine through. We cannot change the hurts from the past. We cannot change what other people thought of us way back then, but we can certainly change who we are now. We can be who we want to be. The bottom line is that we have to believe in ourselves.